An Attempt to Solve Racial Bias in the Legal System

Photo by Scott Zimmerman

Six lawyers assembled at the invitation of the Center for the Study of Democracy on Thursday, October 6th. Their goal was to explain issues of race and poverty in the context of the contemporary criminal justice system. In St. Mary’s Hall, legal professionals Hon. James Kenney, Hon. Karen Abrams, Hon. Peter Messitte, Hon. Melanie Geter, Paul Dewolfe and Paul Kiyonaga combined their legal expertise to tackle complex questions from the ethics of bail, pretrial release, and racial assumptions to community policing. Each panelist contributed their unique perspective to these issues during their allocated 15-minute segments. Afterwards, they worked together as a team to answer audience questions.

The night began with an introduction from the Center’s director, Maija Harkonen. She spoke about her excitement for the event and the qualifications of panel members. Harkonen accredited St. Mary’s College President Tuajuanda Jordan for choosing the topic of the evening’s discussion. Harkonen explained that “public discourse is a political duty,suggesting that the importance of the conversation was not simply to learn, but to fulfill our civil duty. After a glowing introduction, she passed off the microphone to the evening’s keynote speaker, the Honorable Peter J. Messite.

Judge Messite gives his opening remarks. Photo by Scott Zimmerman

Judge Messitte earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School. Messitte has “..been active in and has written and spoken on legal, and judicial reform activities throughout the world…” He currently serves as a senior U.S. District Judge for the Maryland District, having been nominated for that role by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. Prior to his time as a district judge, Messitte presided over the circuit court for Montgomery County. In his remarks, Judge Messitte stressed the individuality of cases, citing the trials of the officers involved in police misconduct and depraved heart murder accusations regarding Freddie Gray. He spoke about maintaining our sense of skepticism but also respecting the rule of law. He warned that the public should avoid preconceived notions and assumptions when watching a case play out; yet, Judge Messite did not state that the system is perfect. He admitted that injustices, such as racial profiling, particularly stop and frisk without cause, are evident in the police force. To counteract police’s racial biases, Judge Messite endorsed “community policing.” This practice would mandate that police spend time getting to know the communities they will be protecting. By doing so they will hopefully build a positive relationship with the people in said community. Judge Messite suggested this personal relationship may negate racial bias of the police force.

Paul DeWolff speaking at the roundtable. Photo by Scott Zimmerman

Messitte passed the microphone to the Hon. James A. Kenney who introduced the panel, utilizing their hobbies to make each legal professional appear more personable. There were laughs from the crowd at Paul Kiyonaga’s hobbies of watercolors and cigars. Kenney jokingly asked if the activities were done simultaneously. Once all the jokes were finished, the panel began discussing the night’s topic. They were all permitted to give opening remarks, fifteen minutes each.

The Honorable Melanie Marva Shaw Geter spoke first. She currently works as a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. She has been practicing law for twenty years now. Alongside her job as a judge, she teaches as an adjunct professor at Bowie State University. She spent her time highlighting the disconnect between actual legal procedure and that which the media portrays. She mentioned that justice was becoming entertainment and that people are sometimes receiving a distorted view of what is going on in the judicial system. Judge Geter, like Messitte, referenced “the Freddie Gray case” which was decided last year. Geter then switched gears and began discussing bias. She explained that bias is born out experiences and told the audience to look at their own childhoods. In her case, she grew up as a family of “blockbusters.” They were the first black family on in their neighborhood and, as a result, were mistreated. Geter’s house was vandalized when she was young. Geter said that may give someone an implicit bias.

Photo by Scott Zimmerman
Judge Karen H. Abrams. Photo by Scott Zimmerman

Following up the Honorable Melanie Geter was Judge Karen H. Abrams. The Honorable Judge Abrams works on the circuit court of St. Mary’s County. Since it’s founding in 2009, she has presided over the St. Mary’s County Adult Substance Abuse and Recovery Court. She outlined a “progressive” pre-trial release program that has been implemented in St. Mary’s County. The importance of this program—and ones like it—is that it aids in an easier, quicker transition back to society. The system allows people to be released from jail without any form of bail under various conditions dependent on the severity of their crime and likelihood of having more run-ins with the law in the future. These conditions range from once-a-week meetings with the accused and a law enforcement representative, to electronic monitoring and multiple meetings a week. Judge Geter claims this takes the bias out of sentencing. The formula replaces human bias, ideally yielding fairer sentencing. The factors that play into someone’s eagerness to comply are given a numeric value, making it harder for race to bias the court’s decisions.

Paul DeWolff was one of only two speakers that was not a practicing judge. Mr. DeWolfe is a public defender by trade, and currently is The Public Defender of Maryland. He spoke about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, African Americans make up five percent of the population in the United States and 25 percent of the prison population. The latter population grew 700 percent due to the war on drugs and now comprises the largest prison population in the world. DeWolff also claimed there was a need for reform in the bail system. According to DeWolfe, the current system is set up so that those who have money can roam free, while those who do not must sit in jail. He also claimed African Americans are shown to be more affected by this injustice.

Photo by Scott Zimmerman
Paul Kiyonaga. Photo by Scott Zimmerman

The final speaker was also a lawyer. Paul Kiyonaga is a Harvard educated attorney, and faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center who works frequently with the Hispanic community.  He approached the night’s topic from a different angle than his colleagues. He chose to tell the narrative of one of his clients: There was an armed robbery in DC where five people were arrested for the crime. Two of the accused were known members of MS-13, an international crime ring with predominantly Central American membership and a strong presence in Washington, D.C..  By association, the prosecuting attorney tried to label Kiyonaga’s client as MS-13 as well, pointing toward the client’s baggy clothes and simple tattoos as evidence. Kiyonaga argued this was a case of racial profiling. Ultimately, Kiyonaga was able to refute the prosecution’s accusation of association. The attorney also described the situational biases against some of the Hispanic community. There are challenges for someone who is completely unfamiliar with the American judicial system, not to mention a language barrier.

During the question and answer section, the panel responded to questions about dealing with racial bias. Their answers were all along the lines of acknowledgement, education, and conversation. The relevance of this conversation is clear: in a nation plagued with racial injustices, the conversation must remain open. Each panelist had varying ideas regarding the optimal solution. Each believed there to be issues in the judicial system but had differing ideas on the importance of each and how to solve them. In order to progress, experts must continue to discuss and address the issues.